Liya Yu — Neuropolitics. Literature. Activism.


The mystical, magical negro who threatened me

I write this with some urgency, that’s why this post is more hastily written than usual. As you surely have heard, the US is gripped by a wave of police brutality ending in the tragic deaths of young black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and most recently, Eric Garner in New York. Right now, people are protesting in the streets of New York against the acquittal of the police officer who killed Garner with a chokehold.

In the stilted and nonchalant seminar proceedings at Columbia University’s Political Science Department, the current protests are hardly mentioned (maybe not incidentally, black Ph.D. students and faculty are severely underrepresented there), but sometimes, a comment still crops up in a way that makes you realize that this uncomfortable reality is nonetheless on people’s minds, especially those who might have brothers, nephews and cousins who are potential targets of that very police brutality.

I have written before about dehumanization of out-groups and how the way we stereotype the lowest social groups through disgust reactions. Social neuroscientists have subsequently shown that disgust towards ‘the lowest of the low’ can lead to dehumanizing them, and that this dehumanization can be detected at the brain level. The groundbreaking work done by Susan Fiske and her colleagues at Princeton on stereotypes shook up the psychology world because it showed that stereotypes are often mixed, whereas people previously assumed that stereotypes were straightforwardly negative.

For example, in the US, Asians and Jews are perceived as low in warmth but high in competence, putting them into the ‘envy’ category of stereotypes. You might have encountered a situation like this yourself: someone treats you based on your skin color, gender or nationality in a way that could be interpreted as complimentary, but it just makes you feel awkward and sometimes even angry. Stereotyping is such a slippery social phenomenon because it often appears as a mixed bag of simultaneously negative and positive ascription of traits.

It’s important to point this out because otherwise, stereotyped or even worse, dehumanized groups, can quickly be silenced in their protest against mistreatment by telling them that someone ‘meant well’ with that comment. One of my students who grew up in Kansas as a Chinese-American told me that her classmates and teachers often portrayed her as a kind of clever and efficient machine without feelings (this is actually called mechanistic dehumanization; Asian Americans are usually targets of this, see Haslam 2006). On top of this, one of the social behaviors resulting out of envy is aggression. So even if a stereotype contains ‘positive’ elements, it can still lead to actual treatment of the stereotyped person that is far from benign.

How is all of this connected to the police brutality committed against Brown, Rice and Garner? Coinciding with the violence committed against these young African-American men, social psychologists at Northwestern University have discovered something called superhumanization, which Whites commonly ascribe to Blacks. Previously, the film director Spike Lee has criticized the depiction of the “mystical, magical negro” in films and popular culture. Now, this new research shows that White Americans like to ascribe supernatural, magical, or paranormal characteristics to Blacks, and as a result of it, deny them feelings of pain (Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter 2014).

If you look at the testimony of Darren Wilson, the White police officer who shot the unarmed Michael Brown eight times, superhumanization is written all over it. Wilson describes Brown as this abnormally tall Hulk Hogan with a face that looked like “a demon” . In his description of the incident, Wilson repeats over and over how supernaturally tall Brown appeared and how he was intimidated by the sheer appearance of this ‘superhuman’. You can imagine how the ensuing denial of pain by Wilson towards Brown might have resulted in the excessive and cruel firing of so many shots.

Following from this, it’s important to realize that dehumanizing, just as stereotyping, doesn’t manifest itself always in a straightforward way. People who are being superhumanized will probably be told that this is meant as a compliment, that they shouldn’t take it so seriously. The cognitive research on this shows though that even seemingly complimentary perceptions of an out-group can result in hurtful and even violent treatment, and that what we have to look out for in situations of exclusion and discrimination – beyond the grand ideological debates on the Left and Right on what constitutes exclusion, racism etc. – is whether someone is able to see us as fully human.


Haslam, N. (2006) Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10, 3, 252-264.

Waytz, A., Hoffman, K.M., & Trawalter, S. (2014) A Superhumanization bias in Whites‘ perception of Blacks. Social Psychological and Personality Science, published online 8 October, 1-8.


Driving our identities through East Germany on a hot summer’s day

On our drive back to Berlin from a short holiday at the German Baltic Sea, the Ostsee, we have stopped in Pasewalk.

The whole town looks as if the stifling summer heat has frozen it. Even the flies that linger around the entrance to the Asian noodle bar seem confused by the brute midday heat, not sure where to land. The town center is desolated. Only one small café, a newsstand, and the Asian noodle bar are open. Except for one store that sells bulky and dated looking television sets, the surrounding shops are closed, even though it is a weekday. An old German couple sits on a bench underneath the modest shade of two trees, staring intently onto the square. But there is nothing to see. The square is empty.

Pasewalk is the infamous town in the Vorpommern region of Northeast Germany where Hitler was once treated for temporary blindness during WWI. Allegedly, it was here where he learnt of Germany’s capitulation in the war and resolved to rectify Germany’s grand humiliation by joining politics. Afterwards, the Vorpommern region became part of East Germany under the former DDR. Today, this area is a major stronghold of the German Neonazi Party, the NPD.

We order our lunch at the Asian noodle bar. It’s hot and the flies have moved inside. A young man is running it by himself. It turns out he is Vietnamese and has been in Germany for 17 years.

“Too long”, he says with a wry smile. His wife and son are in Berlin. He goes there every weekend.

“How’s it like here?”, my parents ask. Really, they mean to say ‘How bad is it here for an Asian-looking foreigner, an Ausländer?’.

My parents always have that particular sense of uneasiness in East Germany. They suddenly become very self-conscious about their Chinese looks and Bavarian accent (which of all possible West German accents signals most clearly to East Germans that they are privileged and arrogant ‘Wessis’) and are terrified of running into Neonazis at every street corner.

That’s only one part of the story, though. I think that what really sets them at unease is that they are in a former Communist country, especially since East Germany’s Communist past can still be felt acutely in the region today. Having escaped their own Communist past in China through immigration to West Germany, working again in a dizzyingly transformed China after Mao, and simply through the general passing of time, they have been able to shake off the trauma of those years – the food deprivation, the intellectual deprivation, the cruelty of the political campaigns, the general terror – almost completely, or so it seems. It just doesn’t seem right, or at least absurd, that the country that became their refuge and new home, the country that is miles and miles away from a nightmarish China should contain a place that reminds them so much of what they tried to escape and forget.

“Well, it’s not Berlin”, the Vietnamese guy says laconically.

“This is the town center” He looks behind his back. “Pretty sad, huh? It’s not the Neonazis that are the biggest problem. It’s the drug users. Unemployment is very high. You almost feel like every young person is a junkie. And it doesn’t help that we are only 40 kilometers away from the Polish border.” He throws in the last phrase as if the open EU border to Poland can account for all the misery.

“It doesn’t feel here how Germany should feel like.” My parents and the guy nod empathically at each other.

It takes three Ausländer who came to Germany from two Asian Communist countries to appreciate the full meaning of this sentence. The desolation, the sense of abandonment, the mutual mistrust, the acute sense of scarcity (though one could not point exactly to what it is), the silence – heightened today by the numbing summer heat – that looms over this town, all of this is too reminiscent, too universal, and does not fit into the immigrants’ (and indeed many politicians’ and tourists’) dream of Germany.

“At least you are right in front of the police station.” I say this more as a joke.

He smiles his wry smile again and shrugs his shoulders. A police car slowly drives past the noodle shop. Inside, two heavy-looking police men stare at us and our rental car as if we each had two heads.

I step outside and look at a massive Gothic church made of red-brick. It stands next to the town center in a quiet Church yard, majestic and serene. It has the charm of that simple and unpretentious architectural style that is characteristic of Northern Germany. The St. Marienkirche was built during the 14th century and has been a quiet witness to the many powers that tried to take hold of the town. Pasewalk was wrecked numerous times during the Thirty Years’ War, burnt down by the Poles in the 17th century and by the Russians one century later. During the Great Westphalian Peace, it was handed over to Sweden.

I cannot help but feel curiosity and a sense of fondness for this town that has undergone so many transformations of identity, ravaged by everyone and yet belonging to no one. Today, brighter and livelier cities come to mind when one thinks of Germany. Pasewalk is in the history books, but on the mental map of the cosmopolitan traveler who drives westwards towards Berlin, it’s a forgotten place.

My parents breathe a deep sigh of relief once we are on the road again. Even more relief arrives in the moment we are in West Germany. It’s a funny sensation. You can actually sense an invisible border as you drive along the Autobahn towards Berlin. Suddenly, you are in West Germany. I couldn’t say whether it was the change of countryside, roadside houses, town names, other drivers on the road, or all combined. You suddenly have left East Germany and you know it.